Friday, August 26, 2011

The World's a Stage in "Cape Feare"

Episode 9F22 – originally planned as the final episode of season 4 but ending up as Ep. 2 / 5 – is one of the most popular Simpsons episodes and much has been said about the fact that this was the farewell episode of the show’s original writing team. I believe that this alone is enough of a pretext to study the storytelling and how they got the scarier moments across and told a “serious” story between slapstick rake gags, Itchy and Scratchy and a grampa missing his hormone pills.

Note: I won’t write in detail about the particular references since there are already a DVD commentary and an extensive wikipedia page full of valuable information about the making of this episode and the many different “movie connections”.

The Simpsons, a series of half-hour (or more precise 22 minute) episodes, consists of quite a lot very short scenes, some of them no longer than 15 seconds consisting of only one or two shots. So a lot of the character based humor is only possible because we’ve grown accustomed to a great many recurring Springfieldians besides the title giving family.

There is a wealth of narratively unrelated parodies, pop references and side gags in each episode, but – like “Cape Feare” – there are whole episodes based on famous movies. In the case of Cape Fear there are already two adaptations (J. Lee Thompson 1962, Martin Scorsese 1991) of the same J.D.MacDonald novel available. The Simpsons episode is closer to the more recent Scorsese version where Bobby DeNiro is hiding underneath a driving car.

One reason why a two-hour movie plot works as a 20-minute scary-comedy-operetta lies in the casting. Because we expect a certain behavior from Homer, Chief Wiggum or Lisa, it is simply entertaining to watch how these characters react to a well-known madman trying to kill Bart. And casting Sideshow Bob (Terwilliger) as the killer, we don’t even need character exposition, just a little brush-up about the townspeople’s previous encounters with Bob.

A parody only works for people who know about or have actually seen the spoofed film. But a Simpsons episode (and every good parody for that matter) should also work as a story on its own. In contrast to many other episodes the main storyline starts right at the beginning and not on a detour.

The first third of the story is also a whodunnit.

Not even a minute after the opening credits, Bart gets his first death threat letter. This starts the game of suspense and surprise that structures the narrative emotionally. We know that Bart is really frightened because he doesn’t laugh at the violence of Itchy and Scratchy. For the next three and a half minutes he is first paralyzed by paranoia, then after learning that the police won’t be of any help in this matter he tries to reveal the killer with Lisa’s help.

About a third into the episode it is revealed that Sideshow Bob was the originator of all the death threats and that he’s about to leave the penitentiary. The suspense now lies in our expectations of how soon they will meet. After the first confrontation/chance meeting in the cinema, Bob is seen steeling his body while the Simpsons (and the audience) are given two minutes of rest when they are introduced to the Witness Relocation Program.

Even during the happy trip to Terror Lake Sideshow Bob is never far. The last third of the episode takes place in Terror Lake and again echoes the first third with Bart being frightened by Homer bursting into his room with a knife and a chainsaw.

The final confrontation on the houseboat only lasts for about two and a half minutes with Bob’s singing the “H.M.S Pinafore” taking up more than a minute. Nevertheless, within the 21 minute episode the sequence feels quite long and memorable. The suspense plot arguably loses momentum when Bart outsmarts Bob with his last request (a classical countdown suspense scene that somehow doesn’t create the tension it should). But the police capturing Bob because the boat passed by a brothel and Abe Simpson turning into a woman end the episode on such a funny note that we forgive the otherwise squibbed climax.

Expressionist Lighting
As we have seen, much of the suspense comes from the anticipated confrontation of Bart and his pursuer. These scenes work because of the way they are written, therefore they are mostly staged in standard TV show style (high key lighting, no extravagant angles).

The Scorsese topshot (left); Bart is scared, doesn't this cage remind you of The Birds? (right)
Surprises and scary situations on the other hand benefit greatly from – or are even generated by – audiovisual elements and effects. So it’s no wonder that “Cape Feare” employs subjective lighting and other horror clichés more heavily than the average Simpsons episode.

Whether someone seems scary is largely based on a subjective perspective. Consequently, people who look threatening to Bart also appear in a different light and from more unsettling angles.
The first subjective scary moment: Marge depicted from an extremely low angle.
Ned Flanders also from Bart's low point-of-view; There's an additional backlight effect as Bart gets tenser.
After all, there is an clear-cut open villain at work, not some mystery killer who is only revealed in the last act like in a whodunnit.
Tilt angles and strong low-key lighting to make Bob's entrance scarier (and more campy).
When Bob gets angry in the parole board room, the lighting changes like on a theater stage...
...and back again, before he talks to the board.
Later in the cinema, Bob only turns green when scaring Bart (or trying to).
Bart does not seem to be scared by Bob lying in the streets (no shadows). At the Bates Motel (tilt angles) there's low-key lighting all around while Bob is writing a diabolical note.
Again extreme angles, low-key (cast shadows), a Hitchcock/Scorsese topshot (god's eye view) from where we see that it is Homer after all...

...but Bart sees it much more expressionistic.
Now that all devices are used, the progression is in the way Bart's reaction is animated.

When Bob comes aboard, he is not scary (straight angle, another rake gag), but soon afterwards he's back in villain mode and tilt angle/shadows.

This time it's not Bart's imagination playing a trick on him. It's the real thing, there are no subjective colors.

Comedy: flat, no shadows...

...threatening again: tilt and low key lighting.

A Stage Show
There’s no question that such lighting looks artificial and theatrical, especially in a cartoon where ambient light and cast shadows are generally absent. In addition to spoofing and exploiting our knowledge of horror films, the theatrical staging is a recurring theme on many levels.

As if foreshadowing* the “final curtain” Bob refers to after singing the complete score of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the episode starts with an elaborate broadway show couch gag that has been heavily critized because it was re-used from an earlier episode.

The TV show the kids are watching before Bart gets his first letter opens with so many curtains that it’s hard to miss the staging reference here.

The nature of a staged TV show is later parodied during the Witness Relocation Program when the Simpsons become the Thompsons and there is an all-new couch gag. Parallels to the popular film-within-a-film or musical-about-staging-a-show genres could be drawn here.

The stage and acting theme is also referenced when Martin is wearing women’s clothes in order to play a murderer in a school theater production (and yes, we see the Bates motel later on). It visually foreshadows not only Homer’s disguise as Jason but also Gampa’s hormone problem.

So it doesn’t come as a complete shock when Bob and Bart put up an full-blown operetta performance with obvious props and improvised costumes and all. Visually, the final curtain falls in the form of a Union Jack (see images above).

The visual representation of the dramatic/theatrical theme is supported by a memorable soundtrack that incorporates Bernard Herrmann’s Cape Fear leitmotif for Sideshow Bob, the Thompson family singing in the car and an abridged Gilbert and Sullivan score performed by Kelsey Grammer.

* There is one favorite instance of foreshadowing that is only marginally related to the staging theme: When Bob tells the parole board that “Die, Bart, Die” is German for “The Bart, The”, a board member says under her breath that “no one who speaks German can be an evil man”. Only minutes earlier we have been reminded of Germany’s violent past in one brief shot of a TV announcer in uniform (who introduces a homophobic TV host with a German/Austrian accent talking about the “music guy’s” costume).

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